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Game on. Michigan contact sports may resume Monday as COVID cases wane.

Contact sports in Michigan can resume Monday, but only with cautionary measures to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The announcement Thursday by state officials represents a victory for high school winter sports athletes and families — among them, several who had filed suit earlier this week.

 

But there are restrictions.

Athletes must wear masks in practice and, if possible, during competition, under the first significant pandemic order signed by Elizabeth Hertel, the recently elevated director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The order is effective through March 29, and will be largely dependent on the continuing downward trend in case rates and other measures of COVID spread — trajectories that might be thwarted by new and more contagious coronavirus variants, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS.

If masks can’t be worn safely, there must be regular testing for the virus.

Crowds for such events will be limited to two spectators per athlete. As many as 250 people will be allowed in facilities seating less than 10,000 and up to 500 people at venues that seat more than 10,000. 

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“We know that schools can operate very safely wearing masks and distancing … We'll continue to watch the numbers. We'll continue to watch our cases. But we do think that there is a way for athletes to be able to participate in the safest way possible,” Khaldun said. 

Thursday’s announcement followed a lawsuit filed earlier this week by parents of five high school athletes, along with an advocacy group and a hockey association. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in announcing the new order, denied that the lawsuit forced the decision.

Even as she was speaking, House Republicans approved a plan that would use the threat of withholding school funding as leverage to force Whitmer to relinquish her administration’s ability to close schools or halt sporting events due to future COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The House plan would authorize the state to send $1.8 billion in federal relief funds to K-12 schools, but only if Whitmer signed a separate bill that would transfer school closure and sports authority from the state to local health departments.  

Whitmer and leaders of the state health department said promising trends on the spread of COVID drove the decision to allow sports to resume, and not political pressure. 

“With all things, our reopening plans need to be guided by hope and creativity, but above all science, not fear and misinformation,” Whitmer said.

Statewide hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients has been in 10-week decline. About 6.6 percent of patients in Michigan hospitals now have COVID-19 infections. That number had peaked at 19.6 percent two months ago.

The state’s positivity rate — the number of positive results among people being tested for the coronavirus — has dipped to about 4.9 percent, the lowest its been since mid-October, another promising sign.

Case rates have also fallen steadily for over three weeks, dipping to 159 cases per million people after peaking at 740 cases per million in mid-November.

“As we watch those case rates decline, we feel that we can safely open up these other activities, as long as we continue to ensure that we're putting our mitigation measures in place,” said Hertel, the new MDHHS director.

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is safe to re-open schools with precautions but recommended limitations on indoor sports, often played in poorly ventilated gymnasiums.  

The department said it will issue more detailed guidance Monday.

In response to the governor’s announcement Thursday, Lansing-based attorney Peter Ruddell of Honigman LLP, who filed the lawsuit earlier this week on behalf of the group called Let Them Play Michigan, thanked Hertel for “efforts to move this important issue forward in a timely manner.”

The decision to move forward or withdraw the lawsuit will depend on the interim guidance the state plans to release this weekend, he told Bridge Michigan.

Still, he said, he was pleased that the order extends nearly two months.

“This is the most certainty we’ve had since March 2020,” he said. 

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